By Don McIntosh
Preschool is a tough business: It helps kids thrive, but working parents struggle to afford it, and preschool workers struggle to get by on its low wages. In Multnomah County, that may be about to change.
On July 6, a grassroots campaign backed by the Portland Association of Teachers and endorsed by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council turned in enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the November ballot in Multnomah County that would establish publicly funded universal preschool. But the citizen-led Universal Preschool Now (UP Now) campaign ran headlong into a separate effort led by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. Vega Pederson for years had been working with the philanthropic group Social Venture Partners to develop a measure that County Commissioners could refer to voters, collecting input from as many as 95 individuals from over 50 organizations (the meetings included Oregon AFSCME, which represents state-certified and registered family child care providers, but it didn’t include the teachers union).
Rather than risk defeat by confusing voters with two competing measures, leaders of the two efforts met behind the scenes and agreed to combine elements of each, amending Vega Pederson’s Preschool for All measure to more closely resemble the UP Now initiative.
Earlier versions of Vega Pederson’s proposal had focused on serving low-income and minority children, with the suggestion that a future County Commission would later go back to voters again to expand the program to all children. When those and other details were presented to the Multnomah County Commission at a July 21 briefing, several commissioners wanted to know why Vega Pederson’s proposal wouldn’t go as far as the citizen initiative. Why not go to universal now, Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Sharon Meieran asked.
That’s what the amended proposal now does, phasing in over 10 years to give preschool providers time to develop capacity. Currently about 3,000 kids are enrolled in publicly funded preschool spots. That would increase to about 10,000 by 2026, and reach full capacity at about 15,000 kids by 2030. [There are roughly 19,000 preschool-age children in the county, but the program would be voluntary, and not all parents will decide to place kids in preschool.]
To pay for the program, the measure levies an income tax on the top 6 to 8% highest income county residents, beginning Jan. 1, 2021. The tax would be 1.5% on annual taxable income (income after tax deductions) between $125,000 and $250,000 ($200,000 and $400,000 for joint filers), and 3% on income above that. Rates would increase to 2.3% and 3.8% in 2026 as the program ramps up. There are a lot of high-income taxpayers in Multnomah County: It’s projected the tax would raise $132 million in 2021, rising to $202 million in 2026.
That’s enough make preschool tuition-free — and provide livable wages to preschool teachers and assistants. Right now, preschool teachers in Oregon make about $13.70 per hour. That’s half the $38.80 per hour median wage of kindergarten teachers. Under the measure going before Multnomah County voters, preschool teachers would be paid on par with kindergarten teachers, and assistants would make $19.91 an hour in 2022, adjusted annually for inflation.
Vega Pederson’s revised proposal had the blessing of the citizen initiative’s chief petitioners, but the mechanism to send just one measure to the ballot was by all accounts messy. County commissioners first referred Vega Pederson’s measure to the ballot in a unanimous Aug. 6 vote. Then they voted 3-2 to adopt the citizen initiative Aug. 27, in order to be able to later repeal it so that just one (substantially similar) measure appears before voters. A second vote on that is scheduled Sept. 3. All five commissioners said they favor free preschool for all county children, but Commissioner Meieran and County Chair Deb Kafoury voted against adopting the citizen initiative, expressing concern that it might look like they were subverting the initiative process.
In a statement explaining her vote Aug. 27, Vega Pederson called the Preschool For All measure “the single biggest anti poverty program in a generation.” That’s not an exaggeration. Not only would it level the playing field for children by making sure all are ready for elementary school. It would also make it possible for some stay-at-home parents to work or go to school, and it would relieve working parents of $9,396 a year they now pay on average for preschool. And it would lift preschool teachers and assistants out of poverty.
“It’s a game changer for workers in the field, to be able to stay in a profession they love, and attract more people into a meaningful career,” Vega Pederson told the Labor Press by video call Aug. 13. Those workers could also end up unionizing. AFSCME Local 88 is currently negotiating a labor peace agreement that would smooth the path to unionization for preschool workers who want that.
Would the Preschool for All measure soak the rich? Hardly
Today’s high-income taxpayers pay far lower taxes than they once did. From 1944 up until 1963, the period of the most rapid economic growth in American history, top income earners paid a top federal income tax rate of 91%. Today the top rate is 37%. Oregon also has a state income tax, and the highest-income households pay a top rate of 9.9%.
How Preschool for All would work
- Children who live in Multnomah County and are at least three years old by Sept. 1 could attend preschool, tuition-free, for up to six hours a day.
- Parents would choose among different kinds of programs, including those in public school settings, home-based, culturally specific, and existing Head Start programs. They could also choose half-day or full-day, year-round or school-year-only, and even preschool on weekends, for children of parents who work on weekends.
- To meet the needs of working parents, up to four hours of before- or aftercare would also be available, and would be free for households earning below the Self Sufficiency Standard. [The Self Sufficiency Standard is a benchmark created by the University of Washington that takes into account local cost of living for different family configurations; currently in Multnomah County it’s $59,545 for a single parent of one child, and $90,117 for 2 adults and two children.]